What is Excel Used for?

What is Excel?

The thought of Microsoft Excel might make you break into a cold sweat. Thousands of rows and columns of data can be daunting at first, but Excel remains one of THE best tools to store, organise and perform analysis on your data. The primary purpose of Excel is to help us take reams of data and turn it into meaningful business insight. i.e. it should make our lives easier and not cause a panic attack!

Excel is the spreadsheet program from Microsoft. It is capable of performing mathematical calculations and organising any type of data.

Excel is basically a giant grid into which you can insert text, numbers, and formulas to help you make sense of your numbers and text :-). Excel can record expenditure and profit, plan budgets, chart data, and present fiscal results. 

Almost all businesses and companies use Excel spreadsheets. Its uses are incredibly diverse. Some sophisticated benefits are - forecasting future performance, calculating tax, tracking sales, calculating profit or even completing basic payroll.

Table of Contents

  • History of Excel
  • Features
    • The Excel Interface
    • Calculations
    • Charts and Graphs
    • Pivot Table and Table
    • Formatting
  • Who Uses Excel?
    • Financial Analysts
    • Administrative Assistants
    • Retail Store Managers
    • Project Managers
    • Business Analysts
    • Data Journalists
    • Accountants
  • Frequently Asked Questions
  • Final Thoughts

History of Excel

Microsoft released the first version of Excel in 1985 for the Apple Macintosh computer. It's hilarious to think that the most-used software Microsoft ever made was initially designed for Apple! Its predecessor was Multiplan which could run on MS-DOS, and it faced tough competition from Lotus 1-2-3, another spreadsheet program.

Microsoft Excel was equipped with complex functionalities to perform mathematical calculations faster than Lotus 1-2-3. Additionally, it came as a package along with the Office Suite, which increased its popularity.

Also, Excel worked in a graphical user interface environment. This interface made it easier to use for people with limited computer experience as you could drag and drop and copy-paste with ease.

Over time, Excel changed the way businesses stored and interpreted data. It also allowed many manual tasks to become automated and quickly improved business processes and forecasting.

What is Excel Used For?

As we’ve established, Excel is used for so many different things. From complex mathematics to putting together charts, graphs and forecasts. With over 500 different functions, it really is the swiss-army-knife of business software! 

In this next section, we take you through a few of the things you can use Excel for. If you’re interested in a bit more detail, then here is a list of our Top Ten Excel Features.

The Excel Interface

First, what does Excel even look like? Excel is a spreadsheet with a grid of cells arranged in numbered rows and letter-named columns. In the latest Microsoft 365 version of Excel, you can actually have 1,048,576 rows in an Excel spreadsheet and 16,384 columns!


Calculations

The primary use of Excel is to perform calculations. Whether you are doing basic calculations (add, subtract, multiple, divide), or utilising one of the 500+ Excel functions to perform more complex calculations, Excel can handle it. 

The magical thing about Excel is that you can embed multiple functions into one formula. Meaning you can make one calculation in Excel calculate various criteria. Here are 10 Excel formulas every beginner should know when using Excel.

Remember the golden rule - every Excel formula starts with "=".

To see the full range of functions available in Excel, go to the "Formulas" tab on the ribbon and select the various dropdowns. 

Charts and Graphs

A picture paints a thousand words. Or, in the case of Excel, a chart summarises a thousand data points.

That's right, charts and graphs are two of the most common reasons you'd use Microsoft Excel. Charts and graphs can bring your data to life in ways you wouldn't have thought possible. One of Excel's biggest strengths is the visual representation of a set of numbers. 

The insert tab has many chart and graph options to explore. Take a look at the different charts available.

There are so many ways to visualise a dataset in Excel. Line Charts, Pie Charts, Bar Charts, Scatter Graphs, Column Charts, Histograms, and Waterfall Charts, are just a few examples!

Pivot Tables and Tables

The most searched for Excel term is "Pivot Table", and for good reason. The PivotTable function (one word, not two!) is probably the easiest way to perform data analysis in Excel. For example, say you have a large worksheet with employee data in it. Maybe you need to work out how many days a particular employee worked? You utilise several functions and formulas to ascertain this, or you could throw the data into a Pivot Table and watch the magic happen.

 

Its drag and drop system makes it simple for even the most spreadsheet shy person to perform detailed data analysis. 

If you learn one thing in Excel, learn to use the PivotTable function. Here's how!

You can use a Pivot Table to manipulate data into ascending or descending order (sort), find a greater than or equal to or a smaller value, and filter data based on a condition. After that, why not try adding Slicers, Timelines and Pivot Charts to really make your data come to life!

Before you dive into Pivot Tables you might want to try out a basic table in Excel. Highlight a set of data and press Ctrl-T to turn that data range into a table. You can sort, filter and refer to tables in formulas in Excel.

Formatting

Formatting in Excel is incredibly important. Many people use the formatting tools available in Excel to make their data more visually appealing or to highlight specific elements for analysis.

Formatting basically changes how your cell or data looks. Cell appearance might be fixed, e.g. you make a cell bright red as you want it to jump out. Or, it could be conditional. For example, any cell that contains a number greater than ten is highlighted green.

Who uses Excel?

Excel is used in so many different scenarios. If you are thinking of starting a career, you might be shocked to see just how many roles insist on having good Excel skills. Below, we've listed a few jobs that use Excel.

Financial Analysts 

Excel is extensively used to research, consolidate, and analyse numerical data and make conclusions and recommendations. For example, financial analysts may interpret data to show sales and direct costs or annual revenues and expenditures.

Administrative Assistants

Administrators use Excel to keep track of events and projects, generate reports, create client databases, organise document systems, and maintain computer records.

Retail Store Managers

Excel can help monitor inventory, set store policies, manage staff, maximise profits through analysing sales and customer trends, prepare annual budgets, and schedule expenditures.

Project Managers

Project Managers might use Excel instead of or in conjunction with other Project Management Software. For example, they may use Excel to allocate resources, manage staff, collaborate with third-party vendors and clients, manage financial records, sort vendor lists, and generate reports. 

Business Analysts

Business Analysts will perform a variety of data analyses at a company. For example, they may study an organisation based on its data, identify areas for improvement, and forecast income.

Investigative Journalists

An excel spreadsheet is the starting point for many Investigative Journalists. To support their writing with credible information, many journalists will analyse data in Excel as the first port of call. 

Accountants

Excel is an indispensable tool for auditing, formatting, analysing and presenting client data.

Frequently Asked Questions

  1. What are the benefits of using Excel?

Excel is a great tool to 

  • Store data
  • Perform calculations
  • Visualise data using charts
  • Pick apart data, and perform analysis 
  • Predict future trends and outcomes
  1. What are some of the critical Excel formulas?

Some crucial formulas in Excel are: 

  • SUM, COUNT, COUNTIF, COUNTIFS, AVERAGE
  • IF statements
  • CONCATENATE
  • XLOOKUP
  1. What are the most valuable tools in Excel?

Excel offers built-in tools such as: 

  • Functions
  • Formulas
  • Tables
  • Charts
  • Pivot Tables
  • Sort & Filter

Final Thoughts

This guide taught us what Excel is, its features, and its purpose in various job roles. Next, we recommend exploring every element in the Excel ribbon and practising it in a worksheet to understand it thoroughly. Finally, if you are brand new to Excel and are looking for a course to get you up to speed, then take a look at our Excel for Beginners course.

You can also visit our free resources and learn about VLOOKUP, HLOOKUP, and INDEX MATCH functions.

Even as complex Business Intelligence tools like Alteryx and Tableau start to step in and take on more complex data analysis, Excel remains the most popular tool for beginners looking to get into numbers.

Learning and mastering Excel will keep you ahead of the competition and give you a truly transferrable job skill!